“Un grande paese si riconosce soprattutto dalla civiltà delle persone che lo abitano e nelle strade USA ho avuto modo di apprezzare quanto sia importante un popolo che rispetta le regole.”
(A great country is recognized above all by the civility of the people who live there, and in the streets of the USA I have had the chance to appreciate how important a populace which respects the rules can be.)
“No Roads Here” Oil on canvas
Here is a partial rundown of the article, paraphrased in italics, with my comments, of course:
Forget all the moral infractions that are committed regularly in Italy. Here are some things you will never see in the US: Cutting and zig-zagging through traffic to get past everyone Cars cutting into the line at a traffic light Using the horn intensively Super-high speeds on the highway or worse, in town Disrespect or total dismissal of the STOP sign
More rules of the road which are different in the States:
You must actually stop at the STOP sign. You cannot just slow a little as we do in Italy. It is permitted to turn right on red in many cases. (I turned right on red in Italy for about 20 years until I realized it was not allowed, never did anybody even look at me sideways…) American police are quite rigid, (and you cannot expect to talk them out of a ticket.) You are required to wear your seatbelt. Well, yes, you are. You can use your cellphone while driving, even without an earpiece. (This is funny, considering that Italy was one of the first places to prohibit driving and talking on the cellphone; just imagine one hand to hold the phone, and one hand to gesticulate, which leaves you driving with some other appendage. I have always said that most men drive with that other appendage anyway!) You cannot pass a schoolbus which is stopped, and you cannot drive with open containers of alcohol in the car, even if you are not drinking.
Here are some other curious facts about the USA:
Traffic lights may be at the center of the intersection, or on the other side.(I have always been astounded that the first in line at an Italian intersection often cannot see the light because it is almost always invisible and behind or above the line of sight.) Another sign of great civility is the 4-way STOP. Instead of giving the person on the right precedence, it is the person who arrives first who has it. In Italy something of this nature would have the inevitable consequence of immediate chaos. Idem. Carpool lanes are to be used only by cars with more than one passenger, in order to free up space: (In Italy I believe this was attempted in the Napoli area and led to a huge increase in the sale of inflatable half-dummies. Or maybe I am thinking of the seatbelt law, which led to the sale of T-shirts with the belt design stamped diagonally across the front…) Beware of road blocks caused by people driving with cruise control who refuse to speed up in the passing lane.(Hear hear!!) Beware of slamming on the brake with your left foot, thinking that the brake in the automatic transmission is the clutch. The resulting screeching halt will be perilous indeed! (My husband once brought us to a head-banging stop on the highway trying to “change gears to slow down” for an accident ahead.) In case you are stopped by the police, slow down, pull over, and keep your hands on the wheel. Fines are paid by mail and never on site (so don’t offer any money to the officer to forget the infraction, one presumes!) The cost of gasoline is quite low which explains why there are so many huge automobiles on the roads. (I would say so, my last fill-up in Italy cost me 140 Euros, about 188 dollars.)
Here are a few they forgot to add, possibly the most important ones:
Warning signs often actually correspond to road conditions. Not as in Italy, where warnings are so greatly exaggerated that no one pays the slightest attention to them. It is a practical demonstration of why someone Crying Wolf can eventually get you killed, because once in a great while the warning sign is accurate!
Traffic flow in the US is mostly an “Each Man For Himself” proposition. Not as in Italy where the entire formation will work as one organism, flowing organically together in poetic motion, while seemingly in chaos. Watch out for US drivers who, as long as they believe they are not at fault, will totally ignore other drivers. I prefer the Italian way.
Helmets in some states are not required on motorcycles, but are required on bicycles, (and recently have been proposed for soccer as well!!) Go figure.
White lines and yellow lines are actually intended to be heeded. (Not as in Italy where straddling the line is expected of most drivers, especially when passing another vehicle. After all, if I pass you I need to rub it in, no? So I will be moving over into your lane at about the level of your front door latch.)
Roadside conferences for smoking, snacking, and urinating are not allowed in the US. There are actually designated areas for these activities along most state and interstate highways! Remember that while in Italy you can stop anywhere, (after all there are two lanes for traffic on most roads, which leaves one lane empty) to chat or smoke or conference, this is severely prohibited in the US. People will likely protest loudly or threaten you in the US for stopping your vehicle in the middle of any road for no apparent reason.
Prostitutes are much more difficult to locate in the US, if this is a potential problem for you. ( You will not see them sitting on buckets by the side of the roads or standing under red fabric swatches, smoking or playing cards as they eye drivers intensely, hoping for a customer. You will not have to explain to your kids, in the US, what these dark-skinned “ladies” are doing congregating at the edges of town. Interesting to note, in a country which seems to be somewhat bigoted towards blacks and gays, that the first choice in prostitutes are black women and transvestites. Ah, but this is for another post…)
In America throwing your garbage out the windows of your car is highly frowned-upon. Roadsides do not reveal, in the autumn after catching fire, a foot-deep treasure trove of plastic and glass. There are even places where highways are maintained by private individuals! (This is a fantastic and unbelievable concept to most Italians, I know. I have often suggested that this, if a plaque could be put up to designate the parties responsible for the clean-up, might actually work in Italy. Deaf ears.)
And finally, if you must relieve your bladder, or your bowels, it is highly recommended that you stop at a gas station, roadside park, or restaurant to do it. You will rarely see a vehicle’s driver casually relieving himself, family jewels in hand and in full sight to passing traffic. You probably will not have to use a flashlight when, after dark, you stop to change drivers and are in danger of stepping in a fresh sidewalk muffin. After all, there are some things that you have to give up when traveling to a foreign country!
All hail the leftover! Especially that huge pan of Pasta Al Forno lurking in the fridge. An anecdote which exemplifies its temptations: Four friends, youngsters on a road trip, depart Bernalda with a lovingly-prepared (Grazie Mamma!) mega-pan, ( at least eighteen inches diameter) container of pasta al forno for lunch. They leave at at five in the morning, and after ten minutes the foil was already being peeled off. Hunks were being scooped out by hand by the time they had reached the main road, and by Ferrandina all that was left was a greasy pan.
Casetta A.N.A.S., Matera Oil on canvas, 30 x 24 inches, 2013
Its summer, its hot, and who wants to cook? But you have to eat, and the best way to get around spending regular hours in the kitchen is to create a dish that will carry a family through a number of meals. Here is a summertime standby which, though it is a little time-consuming to create, will feed folks for a few days at home or at the beach. It is good cold or heated, and it only gets better with time! This is my recipe, tweaked over many summers.
Ingredients for about six hungry people:
4-6 hard-boiled eggs, peeled and roughly chopped, (not diced)
Thinly-sliced hot Calabrian salame, or equivalent: the best is a genuine sopressata piccante. If you can’t find it, then get the reddest and hottest dry salame you can find. You will need about a half pound. Slice each thin slice into half-inch strips.
One can of drained pitted black olives, nothing fancy, just the good-old California kind.
Fresh mozzarella, at least three cups chopped and tightly-packed. Lacking the real thing, use some chopped American “mozzarella” which is actually more like Scamorza, as it is low-moisture. Use the whole pound block, why not?
One cup plus one cup of freshly grated Grana Padano, or Parmigiano,
A freshly-made tomato sauce, about three cups. This can be made using ripe tomatoes, peeled and diced, cooked in a half cup of extra virgin olive oil over a lively flame, until broken down. Add about 4 cloves of chopped garlic to the simmering tomatoes. Add about a teaspoon of salt, and no, I repeat, NO, spices! ( Here I am making the ancient sign against evil pointing my index and little finger at the ground.) Why would you take a perfectly good tomato sauce and add some dusty old shelf-scrapings to it?
One 500 gram (call it a pound) bag of rigatoni pasta, or other medium pasta, cooked al dente in generously-salted water, and drained. Don’t skimp on the salt! (See previous post about pasta.) Rinse and leave in cool water to keep it from sticking.
Get yourself a great bowl and dump the mozzarella, salame, eggs, olives, and sauce together with the drained cool pasta. Mix in one cup of the grated Grana Padano cheese. Make sure the sauce isn’t boiling hot or it will cause the mozzarella to melt and become stringy and incorrigible. Mix everything well, and pour into whatever baking dish is large enough to hold the mixture. Make sure to oil the pan (or pans) well before hand, or everything will stick. Cover the top with the remaining Grana Padano.
Cover loosely with aluminum foil and bake at about 350 degrees until it is bubbling and begins to brown on top. Place the pan where the bottom will not burn, in the oven center usually. About an hour should do it. ( Be careful not to allow the aluminum foil to touch the tomato sauce, or you will be adding some unwanted elements to your diet when the acid melts the foil!)
Cool a little, or not, or reheat in the microwave tomorrow, and serve.
It has been a while, a long while for me, since I have written anything here. I hope you will forgive my inconsistency. I haven’t felt like writing, or painting, occupied with coming to grips with the changing horizons of my life.
In a way, the construct I have been inhabiting for so long has come down around me, crumbling into itself as the new one goes up simultaneously. Everything is a little different, a little skewed, but in many ways there is more elbow room. I can’t really touch the walls yet, as I reach out and twiddle my fingertips, and it is scary, but full of intriguing possibilities. I will grow into it and learn to inhabit the space, even make a cup of tea here eventually, snuggling up with my own autobiography. I hope it is a satisfying read.
I am an orphan, as is my sister. I am now “the old folks.” I am the oldest generation in the family, having reluctantly clambered to the highest rung on the responsibility ladder. I have lost both of my parents in a whirlwind few months, both to cancer. My mother succumbed to a quick and relatively painless but inescapable pancreatic beast, and my father lost the last skirmish in a long war with skin cancer, an insistent mass of flesh termites which niggled away at him until he couldn’t hold it off any longer.
People say, “We understand how devastating it is to lose both your parents together like this.” And it is, but it is also a blessing. Better to choke down the poison in a concentrated draught, all in a gulp, and avoid having to savor it. My sister and I are still spitting often, but preparing to enjoy some light and fruity wine as well. After.
My mother always said, “Oh Lord, I feel sorry for you all having to deal with all my stuff!” She did have hundreds of books, closets full of clothes, empty flower vases, and endless tablecloths. But the biggest job, one that we possibly will never finish, is looking through the papers, personal notes and letters, many of which she inherited from her parents and grandparents. My father, too, had boxes of memorabilia, scraps of the 1920’s and 30’s, and clippings from magazines. He saved the newspaper front pages for major events from Pearl Harbor to Nixon’s resignation! It is a sparkling treasure trove of knowledge, invaluable and irreplaceable. At the same time its presence is enormously annoying, hulking sullenly in closets, boxes perched accusingly on shelves, food for the silverfish. And what of my own offspring, and theirs; will the family be so hindered by its written history that it will eventually disappear, suffocated in a papery pit? Would the touchdown of a tornado be a blessing in disguise? And yet…and yet I wish that they had written more, told us more. The things we might never hear about are now official: we will never know.
My father left quite a library of information and scholarly studies behind, in the physical sense as well as metaphorically. He was so much more productive than I ever realized, and the recognition of his colleagues continues unabated. I am mourning the loss of contact with all things paleontological, the dusty-shelved and boney foundation of my life-view. It is still there, but muted. I know instinctively to grasp it gently, as too strong a grip on it will weaken its hold on me. It is science to scientists, but alchemy and poetry to me. I am ignorant of the study of dinosaurs, but eternally captivated by the smell of them.
My mother was considerate about her legacy, and she left us a handwritten biography which speaks for itself. It was a full-circle life, and it was a good one. Every woman dreads becoming too much like her mother, doesn’t she? I am used to moments of revelation, realizing that I am so much like my mother, becoming more like her, like it or not! These moments are sweeter now; I am pleased that this is so. I am not apt to become so much like my father, but I am made of bits and pieces of him, and they pop and fizzle and glow at the oddest moments. I am myself thanks to my parents; the most earthshaking banality anyone ever came up with. They live on, I live on, and my kids will live on, taking the crowd of yammering DNA with us through time.
And so I know now, after the funerals, the memorials, the thoughtful notes in the mail, that my parents were even more appreciated in the community than I thought. They were well-loved, they were complicated, they were the most intelligent, exasperating, considerate and responsible people, and they are gone. I never imagined that I would miss them so fiercely.
Meandering into town you might see new posters up on walls and corners, intensely colorful and often kitschy, announcing the arrival of the circus. Moira Orfei, bless her soul, has occupied acres of Italian wall space with her huge black beehive of a hair-do, and she is easily the most recognizable circus personality. But her grand show was not typical of the tiny traveling groups of performers who make up the itinerant circuses in Italy. These aren’t like the American circus, a huge tent and multi-ringed affair, clangorous and booby-trapped with wires, an indecipherable illuminated spider’s nest. These are comprised of one truck, maybe three, with a reticent and energy-deprived group of workers who wrestle up a dingy tent, put on a couple of shows in an afternoon, and then disappear into the night.
The European Union, in its ineffable wisdom, decided in the 1990’s that small circuses were destined for extinction and therefore worthy of subsidies for their protection as cultural treasures. Some are worthy of the term “treasure,” others occupy the other end of that spectrum. The availability of funding, as it always does, tends to generate proliferating definitions, and so now there are low-hanging resources for anyone who can scrape together a truck, a tent, and a couple of animals.
Of course to children even a couple of animals legitimizes the cost of a ticket, and parents will oblige. Highlights may include a clinically depressed camel, or a tiger trapped in a small pen and yearning for the only glimpse of freedom it will ever have: the weekly cage-cleaning. There may be an overfed boa constrictor who will suffer the indignity of being manhandled during each show, an effort which will inevitably interfere with its digestion. Bears will suffer with dignity, becoming autistic to protect their delicate souls. If water is the theme, there will be terrible sharks on display, usually nurse-sharks, toothless and docile, to be bothered at intervals by the wet-suited handler who risks his life in the tank. No amount of splashing water and lighting effects can conjure a life-threatening event out of these sad components.
But there are always clowns. Clowns are not always the stuff of nightmares, and they can be quite funny and charming when the audience is easily-pleased and mostly younger than ten. I fondly remember enjoying my children’s reactions to the clowning at these smallest and most humble of circuses. And the crowd is so small that individual spectator participation is assured: You won’t leave the show without being wet, spattered with foam, covered with confetti dandruff, or grasping the string of a new balloon.
Sometimes there is an elephant! Elephants are always grand, in any context, and nothing can beat the mental hiccup caused by coming around the corner and seeing an elephant grazing in the school courtyard. Traffic will stop and heads will snap sideways for the elephant out of context, while finding it a disappointment once inside the tent. Other living odds and ends, small ponies and irritated dogs with dermatitis, human and simian jugglers. How strange to see a raccoon proudly displayed as a rare and exotic mammal species, paraded around on its diamond leash. Camels and dromedaries are always interchangeable, and never are they happy. It isn’t the greatest show on earth, but it is a show. The crowd, such as it is, will wander off afterwards, a little perplexed but ready to have another go when the posters go up next time around.
Every few months or so I am awoken at dawn by huge booming cannons and barking dogs which signal that today is special; a day of celebration. There are festivals based on Saints, commemorations, historical remembrances, and even strikes. A day not designated exceptional is a sad day indeed. When my father visited me he always said, “So today is a holiday? It must be Tuesday!”
The basic form of celebrations has remained the same, although certain activities seem to have disappeared forever now. One of these was the “Palo della Cuccagna“* which gave the young bloods of the town a chance to show off their climbing prowess. A telephone-like pole was erected in the piazza with a bounty of cheeses, prosciutto, salami and such, tied to a bicycle wheel perched at the top. As if a smooth, 40-foot telephone pole might not be insurmountable enough, it was then greased with lard. Squads of four young men, jockeying impatiently for the challenge, armed themselves with a circular strip of fabric to wrap around themselves and the pole. They would scale it in sequence, each man on the bottom climbing up and over the next three. Slipping down the pole and each other, bruises and bumps and uncontrollable laughter would ensue. The first squad to reach the top would triumph and take home the prize. Hilarity for all was insured.
A traditional parade through the town center will take place during the festa. Fixtures in this parade, in the phalanx of the powerful, are the mayor, the town council, and the clergy. Having grown up with the Miss American pageants on TV, I always find it amusing when I see them all sporting wide banners from shoulder to hip, even though I know that this was the origin of the regalia used in those spectacles. Each V.I.P. is quite proud to wear his banner, and I expect to eventually see, in these days of hyperbole, more and more of these in each parade. Will there be a second and third brigade of silk sashes stating “schoolteacher,” “baker,” “or “dedicated housewife?” I imagine a bannered “group of Shame,” with “pedophile” or “litterer” scrawled on the sashes…
Picture Romeo and Juliet and their famous balcony. It used to be that there were small musical bands which could be hired by an “innamorato“** to woo his beloved. (One assumes that women were not traditionally the protagonists here but one could be wrong!) If the wedding date had been established, the young man would enlist the help of this band to serenade his future wife from the street below her balcony. It was a joyous occasion for the “vicini“*** when they heard a quavering voice in crescendo out in the street, and I imagine the bride-to-be and her family endured the event with a mix of emotional embarrassment and merriment as he sang his song to her. Too bad they didn’t have movie cameras to make videos back then; these scenes could have been the highlight of the wedding film!
Every town has its religious processions, pagan and Catholic, quirky or boringly traditional. These processions are still around, although they happen less often now. Every few months people will gather for the purpose of escorting some important relic or statue of a local saint, getting it “out for air” and at the same time reminding the people where their loyalties should lie. I will never forget my first experience with a procession, when, living along the main street, I heard a growing low buzz of human voices murmuring something, (a prayer?) over and over again, a shuffling swarm of sedated bees. People living along the route where the slowly trudging crowd will pass should prepare. Owners of houses will hang their nicest bed coverings from the railings, or adorn their clotheslines with ornate fabrics to honor the occasion. Some families possess a complicated banner with the local saint and symbols embroidered in traditional colors which makes its appearance often and proudly. Behold (and beware!) the balcony which is festooned with a line of grungy underwear instead of a nice bedspread, thus shirking its unwritten civic duty…
As I follow the developments in the new healthcare plans for the U. S., I feel it might be time to digress from whimsical cultural observances to things more serious. I wouldn’t pretend to understand every nuance, but I can tell you all a bit about what the future of “Doctoring,” (a more precise term I believe than “Healthcare”) might look like in America.
I have been living here since 1982, and for much of this time I have been part of the churning, corroded and unpredictable machine which is Italian national “healthcare.” I pay into the program, which is a single-payer one for the most part, and I partake of it (sometimes) as needed. But what I “get out of the system” is limited, and only partially indicative of the general breakdown for most Italians.
Probably the most important detail when describing the Italian system is that no one in Italy has health insurance. Insurance is mostly purchased on automobiles, as required by law, but hardly anyone has insurance on their possessions. I know of only a few people who have their farm implements insured, and no one whose house is insured. Not one person I have ever heard of has private health insurance. But those who have a full-time job are provided for by their employers, and the sheer size of the payments that are required for legal employees leads to a) high unemployment, and b) low profit margins. As might be expected, there is a huge “under the table” market for workers. The math is clear.
This said, it would widely follow that the government provides for its citizens who are required to contribute to the system for the good of all. There is only one glitch in the set-up: there isn’t ever enough money contributed by an under-employed and aging population, and the smooth functioning of the mechanism is skewed by the propensity of the culture to allow for corruption on all levels. This is changing, slowly, but the Italian bureaucracy is an old dog indeed.
When I go to the doctor, my assigned doctor, I make an appearance any morning of the working week and sit down on one of the chairs arranged in the outer office area. I wait, as appointments are not deemed appropriate. The clock here is traditionally interpreted subjectively, and the time can be used to chat with ones’ neighbors as we wait. There are many “ifs.” If there are two people ahead of me it is my lucky day. If there are fifteen, I can cross my other errands off my list. If a representative carrying a black briefcase of pharmaceutical samples arrives, he is given precedence over all. (After all, his time is important!) If, after a cursory examination and chat, my doctor deems that I need anything other than a quick prescription, I am referred to the appropriate specialist. There are given times during the week when the specialists will be on call, some in my town, some elsewhere. If I can get an appointment with one of them in a reasonable amount of time, and I agree to drive the distance within eighty miles or so of home, I will do so. If these things cannot be accomplished, I will be advised of the alternatives.
The alternatives are consultations with experts in all fields who work in private clinics, and where appointments are always available to paying customers. They may also work in the government system, but they reserve their “special” time for their clinics where they are assured a large fee for their expertise. Every city has it private clinics where folks who have the means flock for their procedures. Some facilities are quite chic, others less so. (I once had an MRI in a converted garage.) Here you will get your results quickly, because sometimes waiting two weeks to eight months is too inconvenient, or even an unbearable prospect. Health tourism is thriving in the ex-communist countries to the East, where procedures are done on-demand, and competitively priced.
What wears down the citizenry ultimately is the lack of consistency. You MAY receive excellent care, as my son did when he broke his leg in two places a few years back. He was put in a private room, had traction and surgery, wore a cast for two months and is in perfect form today. All this for a total of less than 100 dollars. Even though my husband had to sleep on the floor next to his son for a week, it was miraculous! You may not receive excellent care, however. My mother-in-law was the victim of an accelerating downward spiral of errors, a dire house of cards which ultimately ended in her death. The only thing which might have saved her would have been if her relatives were all knowledgeable doctors. We weren’t.
My brother-in-law died of cancer due to many years of managing workers in a “state-of-the-art” government chemical plant, where every single one of the hundreds of ex-employees and management have died from the same disease. He started his via crucis in a huge hospital with no air conditioning and eight people to a room, and progressed inevitably toward a hospice facility that was a nightmare. Yet when his family became an insufferable squeaky wheel, he was transferred to a wonderful hospice care facility with a large private room and all the amenities anyone could ask for. Both of these places were about forty miles from his home, over small, curvy mountain roads. The commute, for us and for him, was hard.
A close friend of mine was severely injured in an automobile accident many years ago, and the things I saw and had to do in that hospital still haunt me. And yet she is hale and healthy today thanks to one excellent emergency surgeon who happened to be on-call that day. Thank god she was able to avoid complications caused by infections, heat stroke, and the wrong intravenous fluids supplied to her by bewildered interns.
A hospital stay means that family members must camp out, often on folding chairs or on the floor next to the bed. Nurses are too harried to provide basic care, and toileting, bathing, bed changes and clothing are usually the responsibility of the family. And bring your own toilet paper and bottled water! I have been in Italy long enough to even begin to appreciate the constant milling about of other families in the communal rooms. There is always someone to chat with nearby…And one must never forget that a well-placed wad of Euro notes will probably get you what you need much faster.
But if you need a prescription, the system offers you pretty much anything the doctor orders for very low prices. Patients must pay a “ticket” (a token amount according to income level and category, either preventative or curative) for prescriptions, but generally the cost is low. Many will say that it is a positive thing that these medicines are “free.” Unfortunately the cost can be measured not in Euros saved, but in lack of services. Garbage not collected for weeks, unpaved roads, schools which are crumbling, antiquities falling to pieces; the notoriously disintegrating infrastructure of Italy is the price paid by citizens for their “free” healthcare. We pay, we pay. And every so often, too often, we lose someone dear to us.
In the end, what the Italian system does is provide a baseline availability of services, in varying forms, for people who don’t have extra funds to spend. Those who do have money can pay for excellent care and usually receive it. Those who don’t must rely on what is available, and sometimes that means waiting too long for a hospital bed, or suffering the ministrations of incompetent personnel. Some problems, such as ADHD, are simply deemed “nonexistent.” Older patients are often overlooked, and their suffering is seen as inevitable and therefore not treatable. Up until recently pain has been seen as a necessary part of illnesses and childbirth. (Another post…) And of course you are on your own for dental needs entirely.
I vowed that I would not give obvious advice in this post, but I can’t resist saying that we would be prudent if we observed places like Italy closely. If our reason for demanding government-provided healthcare is to render services equally to everyone, then we should proceed with caution. As with so many things, the distance between our good intentions to the ultimate outcome is paved with unexpected, and sometimes appalling, consequences.